Imagine your workplace software could help you do a better job.
It might provide feedback on your client interactions and tell you how to seal the deal. Perhaps it could teach you how to reduce stress at work. Or maybe it could sense when you're feeling isolated and help you reconnect with your colleagues.
Would that be helpful, or too much?
Some software providers and start-ups are banking on the former, promoting work tools that use data to combat burnout, reduce stress levels, and boost productivity and engagement.
"The goal is to make employees happier," said Shawn Ramirez, vice president of data science at Glue, a platform that aims to increase connection among workers. "How do we keep employees engaged?"
AI is making its way into workplace tools and apps, and software makers claim technology can help improve skills, well-being and social connections at work. Employers are facing new challenges with more distributed workforces, a growing amount of business data, and a plethora of tools and programs to manage it all.
About 47 percent of workers who use digital technology for their jobs say they often struggle to find the information and data they need, according to a recent survey by market research firm Gartner. But some experts warn there could be backlash from workers who may feel Big Brother is tracking their activities.
Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, said technology is changing the dynamics of the workplace, and that may create discomfort for some workers.
"We're used to a model where you need to suck up to the boss," he said. "Now you need to suck up to the computer, the camera and the VR [virtual reality] headset."
Still, a third of workers would accept some monitoring in exchange for support in finding information, the Gartner survey showed. And some providers say they're aware of the privacy concerns workers may have.
Amit Bendov, co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Gong, said the "Big Brother" concern was one the company worried about back when it launched its AI platform to monitor and coach workers through the sales process in 2015. But peoples' attitudes change once they see how the software can help them, he said.
"There's initial reluctance - that this feels strange," he said. "But once you get used to it, there's no going back. It's like going back to washing dishes by hand."
AI for Sales Assistance
Gong, which now has nearly 4,000 customers including LinkedIn and Hubspot, uses AI - some built with large language models from OpenAI's ChatGPT and some built in-house - to help salespeople and managers keep track of deals, prioritize their tasks, draft follow-ups, note and search for important keywords and concepts within calls, and provide feedback on best strategies based on data from previous wins. It can tell users how often they're talking, whether that's too much or too little, whether they're addressing the right issues or their deal is at risk, and the best time and way to follow up.
In short, it helps evaluate sales interactions so that workers can improve.
"A salesperson may be managing 20 to 30 deals at the same time, so it's easy to drop the ball," Bendov said.
Though she's never used Gong, Julie Carlson, a peer mentor for a nonprofit in Portland, worries that being monitored by tech could induce anxiety. At a previous job, the 36-year-old had a supervisor who micromanaged her and constantly loomed over her shoulder. It made her nervous and slowed her productivity.
"I would stop and think, 'Is this a way to get more information to use as leverage against us?" she said. "It's just a feeling of Big Brother watching you."
Monitor Stress Levels
Another coaching tool aims to help workers manage their stress.
The Pulse app by Fierce, a corporate training company, debuted last year and integrates with workers' wearable devices to monitor heart-rate variability. The company claims its AI can detect when people enter "fight or flight" mode based on the pattern of a person's heart rate, said Edward Beltran, CEO of Fierce. And it can integrate with workers' calendars to help people identify the situation that may have led to elevated levels of stress.
The app has optional nudges and notifications, and after a stressful event, the app will ask users questions to help them determine the stress factor and a course of action via a chatbot or live coach. The data is viewable to the individual, and managers can access stress levels in aggregate, but not individually.
The tool can be particularly helpful for people who feel stressed at unexpected times like when they're sleeping or relaxing on vacation, Beltran said.
"There's bleed-over between [work and personal] worlds," he said. "When the coach prods them . . . that's where we learn about misplaced stress."
Thousands of employees working for five large companies in the professional services sector have started using Pulse, Beltran said.
Steve Ozer, communications director for a chemical sales agent based in West Chester, Pa., said he believes there are certain instances when monitoring employees is legitimate - like for safety purposes. That said, too much monitoring can backfire.
"It demonstrates a lack of trust with their own employees," he said. "At a time when we should be building bonds with employers and employees, intrusive surveillance can lessen it or sever it completely."
Aaron, a worker who spoke on the condition of only using his first name for privacy reasons, said he would be open to having his work-related interactions or tasks monitored. But the project manager for a digital marketing company who works remotely in South Africa said there needs to be balance between what both the employer and worker deem acceptable.
Stressed, burned-out or discouraged employees often are the first to look for a way to leave the company. That's where Glue hopes its AI will help.
The platform aims to give human resources departments the ability to identify and offer recourse to workers who may feel less connected to co-workers or the organization. Glue uses engagement benchmarks based on particular roles within each company to determine when employees may be feeling that way. It monitors communications on workplace apps such as Slack and Google Calendar as well as the HR system for information such as promotions and compensation. It also uses traditional employee surveys to bolster insights.
Ramirez, the vice president at Glue, says the tech uses large language models including ChatGPT to help determine workers' individual signals and what they mean. Then Glue can generate scores based on connectivity to a team, across teams, with leadership and an overall sense of belonging. Glue, which also specializes in AI-powered virtual events, automated employee introductions and off-site planning, also offers personalized suggestions for disconnected workers, including a coffee meeting between two people based on openings on both parties' calendar. Unhappy "people start not showing up . . . and their connection changes from talking to manager to [talking to] lateral groups," Ramirez said. "It could mean trouble is brewing or a concern to look into."
But Erin O'Dell, a Seattle-based aesthetician who owns her own company, said generally she would prefer managers use human social skills to determine what a worker needs, whether that's training or connection. O'Dell said she was appalled by a situation at a previous job that made her believe that her company spied on a call she had with a colleague about O'Dell's unexpected dismissal.
"Tech is not going to fix [motivation and happiness]," she said. "People are."
Julie Mueller, a St. Louis resident who works in HR at a tech company, said she has a lot of faith in how AI could improve a person's performance or make their job easier.
"If the product could prove that it could help employees ramp faster and get better results, I'd be supportive," she said. "But I'm strongly opposed to anything that makes people feel policed."
The companies all say that they are transparent about what they share, such as biometrics, and they protect sensitive individual data and offer options that allow users to opt out of specific types of tracking.
When it comes to thinking about workplace software and the data it gathers, workers should consider the trade-offs, West of Brookings said. How much control do you have of your data and how is that data being used? Could it be used to evaluate job performance or to weed people out?
"The most important thing is disclosure," West said. "People need to know how they're being monitored."
--Danielle Abril, The Washington Post